Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, a class act!
I am a Vietnam War era veteran. Although I never served in S.E. Asia I knew many who did and lost both relatives and friends in that misbegotten war. To those of us in the United States it was a battle between Communism and Democracy/Capitalism. That was not what it was about to the Vietnamese however. It was always about throwing off the yoke of colonialism – first the French and then the United States and it’s allies. That’s why we lost as Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap knew we would. The Vietnamese were fighting for their country while we were fighting for … I don’t think we ever really knew. In the end the politicians all thought it would be political suicide do admit defeat – that’s why 10s of thousands of Americans died.
Well General Giap has died at 102 and former prisoner of war John McCain has written his eulogy in the Wall Street Journal. It’s not what you might suspect it would be. McCain met General Giap twice. Once when he was a prisoner of war in North Vietnam and again in 1990:
Giap greeted me warmly beneath an enormous bust of Ho Chi Minh, who had led Vietnam in the wars against the French and the United States. Both of us clasped each other’s shoulders as if we were reunited comrades rather than former enemies.
I had hoped our discussion would concentrate on his historical role. After I came home from Vietnam in 1973, I read everything I could get my hands on about both the French and American wars there, starting with Bernard Fall’s “Hell in a Very Small Place,” his classic study of the 1954 siege of Dien Bien Phu, where French colonial rule effectively ended and Giap’s genius first became apparent to an astonished world.
I wanted to hear Giap describe that nearly two-month long battle, to explain how his forces had shocked the French by managing the impossible feat of bringing artillery across mountains and through the densest jungles. I wanted to talk to him about that other marvel of logistics, the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
I knew he was proud of his reputation as the “Red Napoleon,” and I presumed he would welcome an opportunity to indulge my curiosity about his triumphs. I wanted us to behave as two retired military officers and former enemies recounting the historical events in which he had played a critical part and I a small one. But he answered most of my questions briefly, adding little to what I already knew, and then waved his hand to indicate disinterest.
He told John McCain that it was time to think of the future and not the past – to figure out how our countries could become friends. John McCain was impressed. After reading this I was impressed with both General Giap and John McCain.